By Gregory – Christians all over the world have been celebrating Christmas in recent days. Christmas, a time when believers go to the church to celebrate the birth of Jesus over 2000 years ago. Others with less religious affinity keep Christmas by decorating the house, setting up Christmas trees, cooking family dinners and unwrapping presents from loved ones. For Jewish people as well as Christians, December is a month of festivities. Hanukkah is celebrated by a series of rituals that are performed throughout an eight day holiday, some family-based, others within the wider community. Central to all religions is to create a feeling of solidarity between people of all kinds.
But there is a darker side to religion, one of discrimination and exclusion. In this article I would like to shed some light on two ways in which religions, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, are imposing such discrimination. The first is the role of women in religious life and wider society.
A couple of months ago the Church of England leadership had to decide whether or not to allow women to become bishops. The answer, albeit by a small majority, was no. This makes me wonder why the church alone is allowed to continue discriminating against women in refusing to employ them at a senior level within the church. Religions tend to stick strongly to their pasts, but is it not time for them to now look forward – to evolve, modernise and step into the 21st century? Any other non-religious institution would be taken to court if it refused someone a job on the basis of gender. Why is this not the case for the church?
The Church of England is not alone. The Catholic Church is running an all male priesthood, and the Jewish community refuses to allow women to become rabbis (except in a few extremely liberal communities). Worse still in most synagogues women sit in seperate sections in order not to disturbe men in their prayers. Why does the Jewish religion require 13 year old boys to have their Bar Mitzvah, read out of the Torah and as such step into adulthood, whereas it refuses to allow girls to do the same? Jewish women can’t divorce their husband without taking their husband to a rabbinical court (a court made up of male rabbis), whereas men can divorce their women by presenting them a bill of divorce. So a husband can divorce his wife if he choose to, but a wife could not divorce a husband without his consent. Does such behaviour supported by the church sound in-keeping with the way in which most of us think and behave in this 21st century society?
In many religious societies women are seen as second class citizens. Not that this is written in so many words in any of the religious scripts such as the Bible, Torah or Quran. Often it is an interpretation given by men who after all, let’s be honest, wrote those texts many centuries ago. To get a better understanding where this thinking originated we have to go back as far as what religion describes as the creation of the world. According to the holy texts God created Adam first whilst Eve was created out of one of Adam’s ribs. This resulted in the religious view that a women should be dependent on a men. Men are therefore the breadwinners and should act in society whereas women’s role in society should be limited. Women are the caretakers of family life.
What I described above are only a couple of rules and customs where discrimination is imposed on women by religion. It makes me wonder why it seems so difficult for religions all over the world to grant the same equal rights to both men and women. At the end of the day, both genders are important in making society flourish. Therefore every organisation in society, including religious organisations, should threat both genders in the same way.
The second aspect of the discriminative nature of religions I would like to describe is their stance on same sex marriage.
The religious view of marriage is two people from opposite genders entering a union in the name of love. The refusal of religions to open this union to people of the same sex suggests that religion is more concerned about preserving historical traditions rather then allowing people to formalise their love regardless of their gender. The reason behind this lies in the fact that religions believe a family should consist of a male and a female partner. This is how, in their view, it was designed by God. But why did God create homosexuals in the first place if it is unacceptable? Did God make an error while creating the world? Or do religions misunderstand God’s creation?
In England a situation exists where people of the same sex can enter into a civil partnership but can’t get married, whilst opposite-sex couples can enter a marriage but ironically can’t have a civil partnership. Someone could, and quite rightly, argue that this is discrimination both ways.
The current Conservative-Liberal government in the United Kingdom wants to tackle the issue by allowing same sex marriage that is identical in every respect to traditional opposite-sex marriage. Identical, except for the fact that you won’t be able to marry in a church, because the Church of England and the Church in Wales have strongly opposed being forced to accommodate same sex marriages, and look set to win exemptions should the bill become law. Other religions, according to the proposed bill, would be able to choose whether or not to solemnise same sex marriage. The result could well be that no religious institution would formalise same sex marriges and therefore the bill would become a farce.
This hypocritical bill is a result of religious lobby. Again, and this is the same question as with female discrimination – why are we, as a society, allowing religions to discriminate sections of the population – either directly in their own churches, or through the powerful influence the church holds over the state? Every other institution would be prosecuted for treating homosexuals and heterosexuals in different ways, why is the church different?
The general problem with religions is that they are backwards looking. Backwards to a world that no longer exists. We only have to go back 100 years to see a world in which people were routinely, and openly, disriminated against by gender, by class, by colour, by sexual preference. The world the church looks back upon is one where moral values were not bound by terms such as equality and respect. Modern society is slowly demanding more and more equality amongst all citizens, including women and homosexuals.
Religions better reconsider their positions or churches will be left empty, a trend that is already manifesting itself in Western society. Religions were once created to bring people together. Today, for all their rhetoric, it seems their beliefs and behaviours are actually preventing this from happening.